China’s New Space Station Is a Stepping-Stone to Achieving Broader Ambitions

Space has long been the province of major powers. Only a handful of countries possess the resources and technological capabilities needed to conduct orbital space launches, and even fewer—the United States, Russia, and China alone—have launched humans into space. On April 29, China deployed the first module of the new Chinese Space Station (CSS), cementing China’s status as one of the world’s leading space powers. While a major success in its own right, the CSS will also serve as a stepping-stone for achieving future ambitions in space.

Q1: What is the CSS?

A1: The CSS is a planned modular space station being constructed and deployed entirely by China. On April 29, China launched the CSS core module, dubbed the Tianhe-1 (天和一号, or “Heavenly Peace-1”), from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site. The Tianhe-1 houses guidance, navigation, and control systems, as well as the station’s propulsion systems. It also contains the living quarters and life support systems that will sustain the Chinese astronauts (or taikonauts) who will eventually live on the station.

With the Tianhe-1 successfully deployed into Earth’s orbit, China will undertake a number of additional missions in the coming months. In May 2021, China is expected to launch its unmanned Tianzhou-2 (天舟二号, or “Heavenly Vessel-2”) cargo and supply spacecraft, which will dock with the Tianhe-1 to deliver propellant and other supplies. China will then undertake several highly anticipated crewed missions to ferry taikonauts to the CSS, where they will stay for three- to six-month rotations. The first team of three taikonauts is expected to launch as early as June 2021. The mission, known as Shenzhou-12 (神舟十二号, or “Divine Ship-12”) will be China’s seventh crewed mission to date and the first since 2016.

In addition to the Tianhe-1, China plans to launch two experiment modules in 2022—the Wentian (问天, or “Quest for the Heavens”) and Mengtian (梦天, or “Dreaming of the Heavens”), which will permanently dock with the Tianhe-1 and form a T-shaped layout. These two experiment modules will provide additional space for conducting scientific experiments. Altogether, China has planned at least 11 CSS-related launches through 2022.

Q2: Why is the CSS important for China?

A2: Advances in space experimentation and exploration are generally achieved through iteration, with new objectives building on the successes of previous missions. Major delays or failures can have widely felt ripple effects on entire programs.

The CSS has suffered its own share of setbacks. Before delivering the station’s modules into low-earth orbit (LEO), China had to first develop a rocket powerful enough to launch such massive payloads. Among China’s lineup of rockets, only the heavy-lift Long March 5 (CZ-5), with a lift capacity of 25,000 kilograms to LEO, packs enough punch. A CZ-5 suffered a critical failure during a July 2017 launch, which is widely believed to have delayed the launch of the CSS core module. Officials had originally slated to deploy the Tianhe-1 in 2018, but they announced in March of that year that the launch would be postponed to 2020 or 2021.

Much was riding on the successful deployment of the Tianhe-1 on Thursday. Further delays—or worse, a launch failure—would have been an enormous setback for China’s ambitions in space.

The mission’s success will serve as a critical stepping-stone to future achievements. Repeated launches of crewed and uncrewed resupply missions to the CSS will provide unprecedented opportunities for Chinese taikonauts to gain experience operating in space for sustained periods.

The CSS also provides a platform for China to conduct scientific experiments in microgravity. Several countries, including the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and members of the European Space Agency, have benefited from years of conducting scientific research aboard the International Space Station (ISS). China, however, has been excluded from accessing the ISS, primarily due to U.S. concerns about potential technology theft. With the CSS in orbit, China will have the capability to independently conduct sustained scientific research in space.

While often overlooked, the CSS is a major source of pride and international prestige for China. With a planned service life of at least 10 years, the CSS will stand for a decade or more as a powerful symbol of China’s technological prowess. 

Q3: What are China’s broader civilian ambitions in space?

A3: Beijing is committed to establishing China as a major space power. The State Council’s 2016 white paper on space calls for China to become “a space power in all respects” and expresses that China’s activity in space will “protect China’s national rights and interests, and build up its overall strength.” President Xi Jinping has regularly highlighted the importance of space, noting that “The level of space technology is an important indicator of a country's scientific and technological power . . . economic power, comprehensive national power, and national defense strength."

In addition to the CSS, China is undertaking several sweeping efforts to develop its space capabilities. In July 2020, China launched its first interplanetary mission to Mars, known as the Tianwen-1 (天问一号, or “Heavenly Questions-1”). The mission, which consists of an orbiter, deployable camera, lander, and the Zhurong (祝融号, named after a mythical god of fire) rover, reached Mars’ orbit in February 2021. The lander and rover are expected to descend to the Martian surface in May 2021. If successful, China will become the second country—after the United States—to successfully land a rover on the red planet.

China is also active in lunar exploration. Since 2007, China has launched eight successful unmanned missions to the Moon, including the historic 2018 Chang’e 4 (嫦娥四号, named after a mythical goddess of the Moon) mission, which landed a rover on the far side of the Moon for the first time. At least three additional Chang’e lunar missions are slated to take place in the coming years, building to the ultimate goal of a crewed mission to the moon in the coming decade. Wu Yanhua, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, has stated that China aims to complete the construction of the CSS before carrying out in-depth planning for a manned trip to the Moon.

Q4: What are the implications for the United States?  

A4: With the entry of the core module into Earth’s orbit, the United States and its partners are set to experience growing competition with China in space. Most notably, if the ISS is deorbited around 2024 as currently planned, the CSS could become the only sustained human presence in orbit—a highly visible sign that the status quo may be shifting.

Beijing could use this to its diplomatic advantage. In a post-ISS world, other countries seeking to conduct scientific research and experiments in space could turn to China. The Chinese government has already indicated its intent to leverage the CSS as a tool for international cooperation. In 2016, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations to allow UN member states to engage in scientific experiments onboard the CSS.

More broadly, there is growing evidence that China’s expanding presence in space is pushing Russia deeper into China’s geopolitical orbit. In March 2021, Beijing and Moscow inked a cooperation agreement to construct an international lunar scientific research station. Details of the agreement are scant, but paired with China’s numerous ongoing efforts in space, they paint a picture of a country that is increasingly confident in its role as a major player in space.

For in-depth analysis of the Chinese Space Station and China’s manned space program, explore our feature here.

Matthew P. Funaiole is a senior fellow with the CSIS China Power Project and senior fellow for data analysis with the CSIS iDeas Lab. Brian Hart is an associate fellow with the CSIS China Power Project.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Matthew P. Funaiole
Vice President, iDeas Lab, Andreas C. Dracopoulos Chair in Innovation and Senior Fellow, China Power Project